The Oregon Trail was first created by trappers who followed, mapped and engineered Indian trading routes and extended their use and mobility. Thomas Jefferson sent instructions to Lewis and Clark, explorers commissioned to map it out: “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by its course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado and/or other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” Until the first transcontinental railroad, this as about the only way one could get rom Kansas Territory to Oregon, accessing Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Missouri. To this day you can travel parts of it if you are on Interstate 80
Lewis and Clark and John Jacob Astor of the American Fur Company were among a list of entrepreneurs and business moguls who made sure the trail was exploited for commerce and protected from Indians. Ultimately it connected to other useful and famous trails adumbrating the landscape: the Chisolm Trail, The New York Factory Trail, The Bozeman Trail and the Mormon Trail.
The Oregon Trail is one of the largest trade networks in the US prior to the 19th Century and it was in heavy use not just by traders but by emigrants who were piling into the new World looking to build a better life in a lace that was expansive, pristine, resource rich, barely occupied and free.
What’s interesting about the Oregon Trail is that it is the culmination of centuries of trade building empires projecting power and the growth of global routes that began in the Yangtse River Valley and stretched Westward all the way to Anatolia. It skeined through Persia, Arabia and North Africa and- a little bit like the Internet, it never grew smaller or saw a loss of use from the moment it was created. It was the largest trading route in history.
Earlier in the Millennium, we see evidence that traders and explorers and conquerors from Polynesia may have made it to the Pacific coast of the Americas about 700 BCE. Let’s argue that there were in fact a handful of Polynesian communities that existed long before the Imperial European powers showed up. And let’s say that we know for a fact that the Vikings were in Newfoundland and New England long before Isabella financed the vainglorious Columbus, and let’s eve argue that the Vikings made it all the way to the Ohio River Valley.
Then so what?
If the outposts didn’t survive they didn’t actually finish the job of connecting the world. Christopher Columbus kicked the door to the New World down and after his expedition the Europeans inundated the seas of the Atlantic with the tens of thousands of traders, adventurers, conquerors, evangelicals and asylum seekers who wanted to live somewhere else.
It was Open For Business. It was only about another two hundred years when routes to the west coast were firming up and the transcontinental rail made trading across the country easier. In fact, the very last piece of the Silk Road was The Oregon Trail.
Now global trade was an all-the-time thing, not a once-in-a-while thing.
Now people around the world knew what the whole world looked like.
Now the world was truly one place.